Winning eight national championships under living icon Pat Summitt, the Tennessee women’s basketball program never has been confused for an underdog.
With Summitt retired, longtime assistant Holly Warlick at the helm and a bucket load of freshmen and sophomores, this winter has provided a new perspective for the Volunteers. They considered a preseason ranking of 20th a disappointment. A season-opening loss at Chattanooga coupled with back-to-back double-digit defeats to defending national champ Baylor and Stanford offered a wakeup call.
Still, even as they’ve returned to their winning ways, the Volunteers throw down an unfamiliar card — lack of respect.
In the midst of their current nine-game winning streak, which they take into Vanderbilt on Thursday (8 p.m., Fox SportSouth), the outside vibe is their No. 9 national ranking is based more on the program’s history and tradition than current team.
“I hope we’re still carrying a chip on our shoulder,” Warlick said. “We’ve not arrived. Even though we’ve moved up in the rankings ... it looks good but how hard are you still playing? What are you still doing? Are you still working on your game? Are you still getting better? I hope we’re as motivated when we were ranked 22 as where we are now.”
If they needed more motivation to work harder, having Summitt at every practice surely does the trick.
The 60-year-old retired last season after winning more basketball games (1,098) over 38 years than any men’s or women’s college basketball coach. Despite being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s Type, Summitt has taken on the role of head coach emeritus and remains very involved. She watches practices and talks with the coaches and players, chatting up the latter on many topics beyond basketball.
For Warlick, in her first year as head coach, her former coach serves as the ultimate sounding board.
“She is still active with the program, as much as she is allowed to do and whatever she feels like doing,” Warlick said. “I just told her she has earned the right to come and go. I love her being around. I love talking to her. I love her being part of the program. She doesn’t, by any means, step on my toes. It is a win-win situation for me and the players as well.”
Therefore, Warlick embraces following in the footsteps of a legend instead of trying to separate from Summitt.
Warlick, a Hall of Fame point guard at Tennessee from 1976-80, spent the last 27 seasons as an assistant for Summitt. She assumed a majority of the coaching duties last season after Summitt was diagnosed just months before the season opener.
“I think I understand how difficult it is and who I’m following,” Warlick said. “I just try to keep it in so much of a perspective that I’m a new basketball coach at a program that I love and have been trained and taught by the best to carry on a tradition. ... I don’t feel any separation. I don’t feel like I have to put in my system. And I’m not Pat Summitt. I’m not trying to be. I’m just putting together pieces I’ve learned from her and what I feel worked for me and giving it to our basketball team. So I’m building off a great foundation.”
Despite ushering in a new era, Tennessee (15-3, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) is tied atop the SEC standings with defending regular-season champ and fifth-ranked Kentucky.
Since a home loss to Stanford, the Lady Vols haven’t faltered. Armed with strong rebounding and multiple scoring options, the Lady Vols have rolled the last three weeks. Seven of the nine consecutive wins were by more than 10 points, including a 79-66 victory over then-No. 10 Georgia.
Yet, like her predecessor, Warlick isn’t satisfied. She demands more defensive intensity, more consistency on the boards and longs to see the team’s first complete game of the season.
Until then, a sense of entitlement won’t be allowed in Knoxville. After all, as Warlick points out, this is a young team five (long) years removed from a Final Four with an unproven first-year coach.
“It does put a chip on your shoulder. It better,” Warlick said. “If it doesn’t you shouldn’t be at this program. It gave us an extra purpose to get motivated to get in practice and change some things, do things different and get better.”